‘1917’, WWI Cinema, and the Horrors of War

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– By Sam Hendrian –

Hollywood is not-too-fondly renowned for its glorification of terrible things, especially war. Violence has the dangerous ability to entertain rather than disgust, undermining our instinctive understanding of human dignity. Yet despite this unfortunate trend, there are countless examples that do just the opposite, including Sam Mendes’s recently-released, critically-acclaimed World War I film 1917. With the arrival of this new story from the trenches, let us take a look back at some other movies from Hollywood history that have unforgettably depicted the horrors of “The Great War.”

The first movie to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture was a World War I film: 1927’s Wings. While not as gritty and sobering as WWI movies to follow (there is a little too much sappy romance), its sequences of air combat are marvelously impressive for the time. But it was the movie to follow three years later— Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front—that set the standard for cinematic depictions of war. Realistically-staged and profoundly moving even after 90 years have passed, its raw sense of humanity and plea for peace leaves an indelible mark on the minds of whoever watches it.

Rarely have fleeting close-ups been used more powerfully than in All Quiet on the Western Front. One of the opening scenes depicts a teacher charismatically inspiring a bunch of schoolboys to join the German Army and fight for their country. We then see close-ups of the schoolboys’ excited faces as they jump out of their chairs and cheer, fueled by patriotism and a youthful desire for glory. But oh, how quickly these same faces are seen in close-up with immense fear on them, petrified by the threat of fatal machine gun fire and other horrific violence.

Perhaps the film’s most haunting scene takes place in a hospital where wounded soldiers are cared for. A couple nuns come to move one of the wounded soldiers to the “bandaging room,” but he knows this is a euphemism for hospice, and he screams about not wanting to die. In these few painful moments, the movie makes its position quite clear: war is far more closely synonymous with death than with glory.

And of course, the film’s final shot is one of the most famous of all time. A soldier reaches for a butterfly perched nearby in the silent air, unaware that he is about to be shot dead by an enemy soldier. We see the life leave his hand as it just misses touching the butterfly before the shot is heard. There is no blood, no screaming, and yet its an image that sears itself on the viewer’s mind.

Perhaps the spiritual cousin of All Quiet on the Western Front is Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957. Part combat film, part military courtroom drama, it is unsparing in its indictment of war’s inherent inhumanity. Some heartless French generals purposefully stage a suicidal attack against the Germans and then execute three uncooperative soldiers for cowardice, claiming to be “setting a necessary example” and “boosting morale.” A noble officer played by Kirk Douglas tries to defend the accused, but his efforts are to no avail.

As is the case with many Stanley Kubrick films, there is nothing warm nor hopeful about Paths of Glory. It inversely honors human dignity by showing its desecration, and it serves as a cautionary tale about how war can make people numb to the immeasurable value of every person. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, its ending truly lands its central thematic statement. Away from the front, several soldiers eat, drink, and be merry at an inn. The innkeeper brings out a captive German girl, whom the soldiers start lustfully cheering at. But then she begins to sing a beautiful song, and their unbridled lusts are overcome by an enigmatic experience of the soul, an experience that reminds them of their sacred humanity and the call to virtue it entails.

It is an experience all-too-fleeting. As Kirk Douglas’s officer character stands outside the inn and listens to his men enjoying the music, he knows he must tell them that they have orders to return to battle, but he decides to wait a little longer. He figures he should let them live as long as they can. Death (or at least the serious threat of it) will come soon enough.

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) takes us away from the Western Front and to the Middle Eastern theatre. It is much more of an adventure film than All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory, but it is still ultimately an anti-war parable about an initially decent British soldier’s gradual, dangerously subtle descent into a killing addiction as he leads battles in Arabia. Peter O’Toole gives a particularly effective performance with his eyes, eyes that trade compassion for obsession, obsession for winning at all costs and taking any life without second thought.

On the lighter side of storytelling, we have Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011), a more family-friendly tale of loyalty, bravery, et cetera et cetera and so forth. Not to say that it is a naïve film—the horrors of warfare are still present and never glorified—but it is still perhaps a little too on the uplifting side, especially after watching All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, and Lawrence of Arabia. Sam Mendes’s 1917 is perhaps the best World War I film of the century so far, as it reveals the utter despair and bloodshed of the trenches without ever being excessively cynical, and it offers glimpses of hope and compassion without ever being naively optimistic.

So why has World War I (and war in general) been so frequently depicted throughout the history of cinema? Beyond the sad fact that blood attracts dollars, Hollywood does have the traces of a conscience somewhere in its core, and this conscience demands that the folly of violence be proclaimed to the world. Yes, there are some things worth fighting for, even dying for—God help us if a “live and let live” philosophy sneakily transforms into a “live and let die” reality because we are too passive to care about anybody other than ourselves—but we must be incredibly conscientious about what those things are, and we must be on guard that the concept of killing or being killed does not become associated with glory. Each human life is precious, even that of our worst enemy; let us constantly renew our universal vocation to preserve, not waste.

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Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.

For more articles by Sam, click here.

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